Goodbye Greece…Hello Albania!

One of the most important, and also probably the hardest things about travel is knowing when to move on to the next destination. You have to somehow time it so you’ve had the chance to make the most of a place, but also not so long that it becomes tedious.

With Greece, we nearly overstepped that mark. The weather was getting too hot, the few climbing crags that were still in the shade quite samey, we lacked novelty and motivation, and the climbing itself wasn’t going that well. In short, it was time to move on. We decided to head to Croatia and take some time off from climbing along the route.

We were both leaving with unfinished projects – I was hoping to send my first 7b just before leaving (and got painfully close), and Clay considered going back to Kyparissi before leaving Greece to finish off a 7c+ project (which was also well within reach), but the scorching temperatures put us both off. We just wanted to get out.

Having looked at the map, we decided the most direct way to get to Croatia would be through Albania and Montenegro. I’d been to Montenegro once, for a day, and remembered it being gorgeous, but we both had no idea at all what to expect from Albania. But sometimes, the places we have the fewest expectations about impress us the most.

Planning is not our strong point…

Driving through European countries since the beginning of March, we got lulled into believing all the countries on our road trip would be within the EU and didn’t bother to double check. Of course, it was only when we got to the border that it occurred to me that Albania is not a member state. Neither is Montenegro, for that matter.

This very obvious oversight meant we hadn’t planned to be without access to internet once we crossed the border, so we racked up huge mobile data charges during the one hour or so that it took us to get to a town with a phone shop where we could acquire an Albanian SIM card. Major mistake – make sure you are prepared if you are driving this route! Simply downloading offline Google maps would have done the job.

We also quickly realized it would be much harder to get away with paying for everything with my Monzo card – which doesn’t charge me any commission for card transactions abroad – because cash is very much king in Albania, and what’s more ATMs are only to be found in the bigger towns.

But once we got over these minor, self-inflicted stresses, our little adventure in Albania was nothing short of spectacular.

From the moment we crossed the border from Greece, the scenery became more varied and rich. Endless olive groves were replaced with a wider variety of greenery, the dried riverbeds turned into icy blue mountain torrents, the mountains in the background acquired snowy peaks.

See featured image, courtesy of @clayclaydon: a moody evening in the Albanian mountains. 

At the same time, though, the roads became absolutely rubbish, bouncy, gravely and full of potholes, and we were genuinely convinced this would be our lot for the whole time in this country. Well, this is the price you pay for being somewhere more remote, we thought.

Luckily, it turned out the majority of roads are actually pretty good quality, and what’s more there are no tolls on the highways. A major relief after the extortionate drive trough Greece (tolls for vans are often well over twice the price for a car!).

The driving, however, is a sight to behold. Especially the traditional Albania art of overtaking on a dual carriageway within inches of an oncoming vehicle!

The Benja Hot Springs

Our first destination was recommended on a blog I read about Albania – some natural hot springs close to the small town of Permet, near the Greek border. We read that we could stay at this place overnight, so we headed straight there. The following day, we awoke to a postcard-perfect panorama (akin to the featured image on this blog, but with more sunshine).

Sadly, the place is a bit of a tourist trap, and we were particularly unlucky to be there on the 1st May, a public holiday in Albania. So from early morning it became inundated with people – families coming for a visit, whole buses full of school kids, you name it. There are also clear signs of devastation by humans – a lot of rubbish were it shouldn’t be, and the public toilets are absolutely filthy.

All the people...
All the people…

Climbing away from all the people

But it is possible to get away from the crowds if you go up the gorge, and it feels a lot more like an adventure anyway! Having done a bit of research online, I knew there were a few bolted climbing routes up the gorge, so we packed our climbing gear and set off for a walk. Yes, we were meant to be taking a week off from climbing, but how could we pass up an opportunity to say we had climbed in Albania?

The path leads up a windy riverbed and we had to wade through the river to cross from one side to another at least five times before we reached the crag. But it was worth it, though we only had time to get on a couple of lines before the sun hit the rock. It would have been better to go earlier in the morning, but the information we had was very limited.

Clay hiding from the heat
Clay hiding from the heat

The rock is limestone, but unlike anything we climbed on in Greece. It looked chossy, but ended up being pretty solid, if quite dirty from the lack of traffic. The crag is really small, but has quite a variety of grades, mostly between 6a+ and 7b, though there is even an 8b project line somewhere. We got on a 6b, which felt quite easy but also a bit scary, and Clay tried an incredibly powerful looking 7a. I didn’t bother!

The topos can be found on climbingalbania.com.

The kindness of strangers

From the natural pools, we moved on towards the capital, Tirana, planning to make a stopover for the night at a spot we found through an app called park4night, which has helped us out a lot on our travels. The person recommending this place described it as a small hotel and restaurant owned by a Franco-Albanian couple and said they were happy for campers to stay in their car park, and the food was nice.

So we made a course for this place…and we were not disappointed. Though the couple spoke barely any English, and I speak barely any French, we managed to communicate. They were happy for us to stay, and concerned only with whether the ground of their car park was level enough for us to have a good night’s sleep. What’s more, they told us we could have a shower in the morning in one of the hotel rooms, absolutely free of charge! Anyone who has ever lived long-term in a van knows how precious a free shower is.

We had a tasty dinner of goat meat (though after going almost exclusively vegetarian, it was a bit much for me!), fried potato, salad, bread and two large beers, for around €11. The next morning, we had a huge breakfast (picture), two quality coffees and two small bottles of water for €5.50. It was almost like being back in Asia again!

Our amazing Albanian breakfast
Our amazing Albanian breakfast

Being good tourists

The next day, we made it to the capital and spent most of the day being good tourists. We took a cable car ride up a large hill with a view over the capital, which cost us the grand total of €12, and we went to the Bunk’ART museum, set inside a huge five storey underground bunker, which details the history of Albania throughout the 20th century – especially the world wars and the dictatorial communist regime of Enver Hoxha. For €4 each, it was really worth the visit!

We spent our last night in Albania camping by a lake close to the border with Montenegro and drinking wine with some random Polish people who had stopped next to us, in the true spirit of travelling.

Albania’s natural beauty would be enough to come back for. Throw in the friendly people, low prices, and the fact that I still have some Albanian money left over (about €8 worth, which could pay for a weekly shop) – and it is now firmly on my list of places to visit again!

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